Looks like I ignited some controversy over my post on “Heavy Metal Is Saving Society.” If you read the ensuing comments, you’ll see many of the common arguments and defenses about this type of music that some would even consider to be an identity.
We’ve got the passionate fans who will eloquently defend it (UFOInsider and yours truly, among others); we’ve got the people who sadly believe the dismissive stereotypes of metal as angry music for serial killers; we’ve got the usual debates over what is considered “metal” and what isn’t, and of course, which of the Big Four is the best.
If any of that flew over your head, might I kindly offer you my services?
You see, heavy metal has been ragingfor more than forty years, and there is a burgeoning bevy of resources available for both the hardcore fans and the uninitiated alike. For an introduction, I can’t recommend filmmaker Sam Dunn’s work enough; his documentary “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” is perhaps the definitive heavy metal documentary, and its follow-up, “Global Metal,” is just as good.
Here is my effort to introduce you to the myriad forms of expressing…the heavy metal identity.
A disclaimer, especially to any elitists who are reading: I’m pretty much a metal hippie and refuse to take a verbal dump on any bands—I seriously like almost everything. This is meant to be as accessible as possible, with regard to the historical context and the stuff going on now. This guide is going to introductory, for the uninitiated.
And now…let us begin.
EARLY METAL AND HARD ROCK
These are the great standard-bearers of old, the height against which all the others are measured. If you’ve had any exposure whatsoever to the genre of heavy metal, there’s a pretty good chance it’s one of these. The reason is the considerable overlap between heavy metal and classic rock, as you’re likely to hear any of the below acts on a classic rock station.
Most fans probably wouldn’t contest the “official” birth of heavy metal to be 1970, with the arrival of Black Sabbath. However, early influences are not limited to Ozzy Osbourne and company.
If you wanted to go back even further to the very beginning of heavy metal/hard rock and probably the seminal hard rock song, you’d have to go back to 1964, to the brothers Ray and Dave Davies, of The Kinks. Although Van Halen’s cover version re-popularized it years later, at the time the unparalleled fuzzy snarl of the main riff inspired guitarists the world over.
It was only a tiny glimpse of what was to come. For most of the 1960s, popular music was largely safe and polished, epitomized by The Beatles, but by 1967 music was becoming more political, more bluesy, and more, dare we say it, angry. The root of all heavy metal (and rock and roll, for that matter), is blues music, and though neither group lasted very long, Blue Cheer (from San Francisco) and Cream (from Great Britain) were introducing a unique blend of blues rock, drenched in psychedelic haze, that would be the most important influence upon early metal.
The very earliest hard rock and heavy metal scenes in the United States had their centers in San Francisco, home of Blue Cheer and also Iron Butterfly, both of whom contributed seminal early recordings to the development of the genre. Iron Butterfly, one of the forefathers of the psychedelic genre, made its mark with “In A Gadda Da Vida,” complete with epic-length drum solo and all. Steppenwolf also rose to prominence with its signature song, “Born To Be Wild,” establishing what would a trademark heavy metal theme: riding around on a motorcycle and roaring down the highway. It’s also the first instance of the words “heavy metal” being used in a popular song.
In Detroit, a different scene was developing, something much more raw and primal than the hippies over on Haight-Ashbury. When listeners first heard The Stooges, they didn’t want to sit back and light up a blunt…they wanted to break something. Considered one of the first punk bands, even before the Sex Pistols made punk rock a phenomenon in England, the Stooges and their contemporaries in MC5 were especially influential upon thrash metal, hardcore and the other more extreme heavy metal subgenres.
Ultimately however, The Stooges were too volatile to last, and they split as the drugs and violence took their toll. Later hard rock and heavy metal superstars like Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent would enrapture audiences with splendid live theatrics, the former with a well-known “travelling horror show” aesthetic and the latter with a yowling, I’m-from-Detroit-and-I’m-here-to-party stage presence that hasn’t really waned. Just witness the below! Detroit—gotta love ‘em.
ACROSS THE POND
Over in Great Britain, a trifecta of the most influential hard rock/heavy metal groups would emerge, all from poor/working-class industrial neighborhoods and sporting a long-haired, tough-as-nails attitude that would deflate the drug-fuelled hippie culture of the time.
Popular and influential as they were, Led Zeppelin isn’t usually considered “heavy metal” per se; Deep Purple is a bit more debatable.
But where the debate pretty much ended, of course, was with a British band in a class all by itself…Black Sabbath.
Starting out as a blues cover band called Earth, it took a terrible tragedy for the band (and the entire genre of heavy metal) to really take off. When he was working at a steel-cutting factory operating one of the machines, lead guitarist Tony Iommi didn’t pull his hand back in time, losing the tips of his second and third fingers on his left hand. Undeterred, he actually fashioned new tips for himself made out of molded plastic and rubber and had them surgically grafted back on. He also switched to using banjo strings on his guitar and played more power chords since both were easier on the fingers.
The result was a thick, dense, heavy tone that drove people nuts. Incredibly, it took this tragedy for Black Sabbath to really take off.
And what many consider to be the first heavy metal song, like a horror movie set to music, is the song that caused Earth to change its name to Black Sabbath. Just look at that album cover. Creepy, no?
And yet, people loved it. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward found themselves the center of a new genre, which Rob Zombie describes as, “Everybody who plays heavy metal is playing Black Sabbath, whether they realize it or not. They might be playing it a little faster, a little slower, a little upside down…but they’re playing Black Sabbath. They wrote every single cool riff. Ever.” Another fan told me once that he considered Black Sabbath to have written every single type of heavy metal just on their first three albums (largely true, but not quite).
Loud. Dark. Crushing. Powerful.
Heavy Metal, the greatest music on earth, was born.
Today, Black Sabbath has announced a full reunion that has only been marred by Tony Iommi’s diagnosis with cancer. The worldwide tour was announced and then cancelled due to the news, although the new studio album is still on the table. When and if it drops, headbangers around the world will rejoice, as this crowd at Birmingham did in 2012.
Feel free to add on to the discussion on early metal in the comments, or if I missed one of your favorites, go ahead and add it! Horns up! See you next time.